The International Space Station has provided many opportunities for looking outward into the undiscovered territory of space. But in this video, the space station offers a unique perspective on one of Earth's greatest visual spectacles: the northern lights.
"We can actually fly into the auroras [northern and southern lights]," NASA astronaut Don Pettit, a flight engineer for the orbiting lab's current Expedition 30, told Space.com. "It's like being shrunk down and put inside of a neon sign."
The northern and southern lights, also known as aurora borealises, are caused when sun particles collide with the Earth's atmosphere. The collisions can result in a broad array of colors, depending on how the particles interact with oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere and how high they are at the time of impact. Lower elevation impacts usually result in green lights, while those at a higher atmosphere produce more red results. Nitrogen particles also create blue and purple hues. You can read more about how the different colors are created in this informative post from Causes of Color.
"Red auroras reach all the way up to our altitude 400 kilometers [240 miles] above Earth," Pettit told Space. "Sometimes you feel like you can reach out and touch them. Green emissions, on the other hand, tend to stay below the space station," he said. "We fly right over them."
Back in January, we showed you time-lapse photography taken during an especially large solar storm that extended the northern lights' visibility on the ground.
As beautiful as the northern lights are to watch, they also pose potential risks to our technology-driven world. Scientists recently said there is about a 12 percent chance of a massive solar storm in the next few years that could make the aurora borealis visible "from Manhattan to the Caribbean," according to the New York Daily News. But such a display could wreak havoc on the world's power systems and communications satellites. The last known storm of similar magnitude struck in 1859, causing severe damage to telegraph poles.
The current crop of solar storms is part of an 11-year regular cycle of solar activity. This burst, known as Solar Cycle 24, is expected to peak in 2013, meaning space crews should have plenty of opportunities to capture more amazing videos like the one above.
If you're trying to plan a visit to see the northern lights in action, TNT magazine has put together a list of the top five places for viewing.
And while astronauts await the next colorful light show, they've also been witness to other unusual visual displays, including those of meteors crashing to the Earth beneath them.
"Occasionally we see a meteor burning up in the atmosphere below, and this does look strange," Pettit tells Space. "You should be looking up for meteors, not down."
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